As Catholics and as American citizens, we have both the privilege and the obligation to participate in the democratic process in a way which reflects our spiritual values. In an increasingly complex world, our obligation to educate and inform the conscience remains primary. We look to both Scripture and to Tradition on issues such as poverty, war, social justice, marriage and family, immigration, care for creation, and capital punishment. Above all, we have an obligation to uphold human life and dignity in accordance with the commandment of Jesus to “love one another” (John, 13:34). In the Catholic tradition, we are bound to act as responsible citizens in political life. “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person … As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life,” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1913-1915).
Our own Archbishop Charles Chaput is an avid proponent of the notion that we must live our faith clearly and vocally. Not one to back down on moral issues because of undue discretion or diplomacy, Chaput has argued that we fail at our faith when we remain silent about moral issues. We have, in his view, fallen asleep at the wheel, neglecting to live what we actually believe:
“It’s hard to see this as anything but a case of split personality. In practice, we’ve buried ourselves in material pursuits, distractions, … technological narcotics. … a stagnancy or sloth of the soul that shows itself in an unwillingness to ‘judge’ in the name of false compassion; a disregard for moral conviction that hides behind flexibility and openness.”¹
In the context of our relationship with guns and their role in our society, we must ask ourselves how we should inform our conscience. After the slaughter of innocent children at Sandy Hook, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) submitted testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The USCCB reiterated its consistent advocacy for peace and the prevention of gun and other forms of violence that strike at the life and dignity of persons, noting its support in 1994 for the Assault Weapons Ban. Before the Judiciary Committee and in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, the USCCB urged Congress to support policies that:
- Require universal background checks for all gun purchases;
- Limit civilian access to high-capacity weapons and ammunition magazines;
- Make gun trafficking a federal crime, and;
- Improve access to mental health care for those who may be prone to violence ²
In addition to these measures, the USCCB called upon the entertainment industry to reflect upon how its profit motives have allowed the proliferation of violent video games and movies which glorify violence and desensitize audiences. Finally, the USCCB called for the improvement of resources for parents, guardians and young people to evaluate media and entertainment outlets intelligently.
The issue of gun violence and Second Amendment rights is both simple and complex. It is a straightforward observation that gun violence affects all of us, and that violence is contrary to the Gospel message of peace. The complexity is a reflection of our laws and institutions, and the often conflicting interests involved – state and federal constitutions; individual rights versus the common good; states’ rights; the rights of municipalities to ensure safety; and the often changing and convoluted realm of jurisprudence. Although there are no simple answers, one thing is certain: if we do nothing, gun violence will continue and likely increase, and the most marginalized members of society will suffer the most. It is not enough to blindly state, “It is my second amendment right,” any more than it is to argue only that guns kill. We have an obligation to find our way out of the morass of violence which we have created, because we have been endowed not only with faith, but with reason as well. As Archbishop Chaput stated,
” Party loyalty is a dead end. It’s a lethal form of laziness. Issues matter. Character matters. Acting on principle matters. The sound bite and the slogan do not matter. They belong to a vocabulary of the herd, and human beings deserve better. Real freedom demands an ability to think, and a great deal of modern life seems deliberately designed to discourage that” (Emphasis added)³
Together, we can find solutions. We must, however, have the sincere will to do so, and the courage and moral fortitude to speak out with conviction and clarity.
¹ Chaput, Charles J., Render Unto Caesar – Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, p.32
² Testimony Submitted for the Record On Behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary – “Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence: Protecting Our Communities While Respecting the Second Amendment,” February 12, 2013
³ Chaput, Charles J., Render Unto Caesar, p. 4